Dunn Ranch Prairie is rebuilding the ecosystem of the prairie, one project at a time
Bison at Dunn Ranch Prairie in Northwest Missouri were reintroduced in 2011 from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The herd, which began with 35 genetically pure bison, now numbers around 140.
The ranch’s bison share the prairie with a variety of plant and wildlife. The ant mounds that dot
the landscape are an essential component of the tallgrass prairie restoration effort.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kent Wamsley, left, and Keith Bennett manage Dunn Ranch Prairie. They say their objective is to make the site more accessible to the public so they can visit the prairie, experience nature and leave a little more informed about its history and heritage.
During mating season, the male prairie chicken inflates his orange air sacs to impress the females. Restoring prairie chicken populations has been an important focus of wildlife conservation at Dunn Ranch.
This waterway was restored to help the endangered Topeka shiner, a type of minnow that only grows to be a few inches long. The piles of woody material were strategically placed to give the fish natural cover. Vegetation will be planted along the banks.
Located just south of Dunn Ranch, Little Creek Farm, also owned by The Nature Conservancy, is a testing ground for sustainable grazing strategies. MFA has been working with the farm managers to do soil sampling and forage analysis to improve the pastures.
The new viewing platform, pictured to the right of the barn, allows visitors to take in the full scope of Dunn Ranch Prairie. The vantage point also provides a good place to spot prairie chickens on their leks, where the males come to show off during mating season each spring.
Exploring and mapping the Missouri River in the early 1700s, French explorer Étienne Veniard de Bourgmont described what he saw as “the finest country and the most beautiful land in the world; the prairies are like the seas and filled with wild animals…in such quantities as to surpass the imagination.”
Thriving on this country’s sacred and plentiful grounds were the indigenous societies that existed thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. In the Grand River Grasslands, the Southern Sioux, Osage and Missouria tribes stewarded the tallgrass prairie, which supported a diverse array of flora and fauna.
Until its statehood in 1821, one-third of Missouri had a highly diverse prairie system. Today, more than 200 years later, less than 51,000 scattered acres of unplowed prairie remain, with approximately 26,600 acres protected by private and state agencies, according to the Missouri Natural Heritage Database.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global conservation group, is doing its part to help protect and restore these native grasslands. TNC owns and manages the 4,000-acre Dunn Ranch Prairie near Hatfield, Mo. The prairie is part of the 70,000 acres that make up the Grand River Grasslands conservation area.
“We are trying to continue a diverse species presence and be resilient against the new climatic patterns in a sustainable manner,” said Kent Wamsley, TNC’s grasslands and sustainable agriculture strategy manager in Missouri, who has been site manager at Dunn Ranch for three years.
Some 150 years ago, when the Dunn family homesteaded land in Harrison County, about 15 million acres of native grassland grew in Missouri. Most of the prairie had disappeared by 1950, making the 1,000 acres of unspoiled prairie on the Dunn farm a precious commodity. In the 1970s, TNC learned of this gem and offered to purchase 2,281 acres from the late Billie Dunn Meadows and her husband, Frosty. It took almost 30 years before the family decided to sell in 1999.
Dunn Ranch Prairie is now a successful research center and model for sustainable agriculture. For more than 20 years, its work has included soil health research; pollinator studies; reintroducing bison, prairie chickens and the Topeka shiner; saving water sources; bird surveys; and vegetation and grazing research.
“There has been so much progress here,” Wamsley marveled while driving through the ranch. “Just think of the early settlers on horseback, riding through the prairie. Switchgrass and big bluestem, 7 to 8 feet tall. It must have been quite a sight and an overwhelming experience.”
As soon as the land was purchased, TNC began converting the fescue fields to native grasses and forbs. Prescribed burning is used as a management tool to restore soil nutrients, control tree seedlings and invasive species, encourage seed germination and promote the growth of native plants.
“These grasslands store carbon in their roots, help clean our water and protect from flooding and erosion,” said Keith Bennett, TNC’s conservation practitioner who specializes in seed collection and prairie restoration. Bennett has worked for 16 years on Dunn Ranch Prairie.
Bennett is the caretaker of more than 300 species and grasses and possesses an impressive, self-taught knowledge of plant life. “I know the Latin as well as the common names for all the native species here. I might not pronounce the Latin name correctly, but I know it,” he laughed.
In the spring and summer, Bennett oversees the seed collection. He does harvest some seed with a combine, but most is done by hand.
“We have some rare native plant species here,” Bennett said, “so it is important to have an organized collection and track all our plant life.”
Across the prairie are mounds that, at first glance, seem to be bison dung. They are not. These are ant mounds, which are beneficial to the tallgrass prairie. Through their tunneling, burrowing and excavating, ants affect soil properties and help plant seeds, Bennett explained. They’re a healthy ecological component of tallgrass prairie management and restoration efforts.
“We have more than 30 species of ants—some are tiny, and others are as big as a pickup,” Wamsley joked.
In reality, the largest inhabitants of Dunn Ranch are bison, reintroduced to the prairie in 2011 from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The herd, which began with 35 genetically pure bison, now numbers around 140.
“I’m going to say 143 bison right now, because we started having calves a couple of days ago,” said Wamsley, pointing out the new red calf running alongside his protective mother.
The bison are another management tool to help maintain a biologically rich and vital landscape. Seed pollen is carried in the bison fur, which helps pollinate the plants and flowers. By stomping and lying on the ground, the bison create wallows, which fill with rainwater, allowing other species to thrive. The bison urine and dung enrich the soil with nutrients such as nitrogen, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur and calcium.
“When you look across our landscape, a patchwork develops because of the way the bison graze,” said Wamsley. “They don’t have the Pac-Man philosophy of eating everything in front of them. You will see the bison grazing in one corner of the ranch. Then they decide to go clear across to another pasture. They walk to that area, just walk. No grazing along the way.”
A bison’s diet primarily consists of grasses, encouraging the growth of forbs in the prairie and helping to maintain the ecosystem balance. The land on Dunn Ranch Prairie provides all that the bison need to flourish, Wamsley said.
“The only time we intercede is in the fall when we do a roundup,” he said. “That’s when we perform a health check, tagging and processing the young animals. We use mineral on occasion, depending on what we are seeing with the herd. But other than that, we are hands off.”
In addition to the bison, Dunn Ranch is home to some of the last flocks of greater prairie chickens in Missouri. In the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of prairie chickens roamed throughout the Midwest. Due to over-hunting and changes to its prairie habitats, the number has dropped to fewer than 100 in the state, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“This spring, the chickens have been pretty few and far between on the ranch,” said Wamsley. “For some reason, they are scattered around the area on the adjacent fields and farms. We are probably around 75 to 100 birds between here and southern Iowa.”
There is a viewing blind and a field camera located on one of the leks on the ranch. In the past year, a viewing platform was built off the barn north of the leks, hilltops where the males assemble during the mating season each spring and engage in competitive displays that attract females.
“We wanted a way to bring nature to the people, so we also offer a live stream from the prairie,” said Wamsley. “The prairie chicken’s unique and ancient mating rituals are always a popular attraction. These leks are ancestral sites that the chickens come back to, generation after generation. We don’t have a full understanding why they choose this spot. Some people think it’s because it allows the sound to travel across the landscape. And indeed, you can hear the male chicken’s low, haunting boom for a mile and a half, if the wind is right. The sound resonates throughout the prairie.”
The males’ eerie booming calls, unique dance and fights with other males are part of the mating ritual so the hens can select the most fit mate, Wamsley explained.
“All the males show up, puff up their chest and act real tough,” he said. “They inflate their air sacs on the side of their head, put up their feathers in the back, make themselves look bigger, and then boom at each other. The largest, most impressive male on the lek is usually the one who ends up getting the females.”
Wings and water
Also benefiting from the restored prairie are migratory birds and butterflies.
“We are a stopover for many different songbirds, and monarch butterflies also use the site during their migration,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of diversity here.”
Other birds that can be seen in the area include the bobolink, Bell’s vireo, dickcissel, grasshopper sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, northern harrier and short-eared owl.
Land restoration can’t happen without returning the waterways to a healthy condition, Wamsley said. TNC and the Missouri Department of Conservation are working to bring back the Topeka shiner to Little Creek, a prairie headwater stream at Dunn Ranch Prairie.
“We have a lot of threatened aquatic species in our waters,” Wamsley added.
The Topeka shiner was listed as endangered in 1999. The minnow-like fish, less than 3 inches in length, is a silvery-green color with a dark stripe on the side of its body. During spawning, the male has fins that turn bright red-orange. They can be found in small streams with cool, high-quality waters and sand or gravel substrate.
TNC is nearing completion on a project that involved rebuilding two culverts to help bring the waters and the Topeka shiner across the ranch’s property. The stream banks are being repaired, and vegetation will be planted to improve and sustain the shiner and other aquatic life.
Just south of Dunn Ranch Prairie is Little Creek Farm, 217 acres of once-overgrazed pasture with inadequate fencing that allowed the cattle to roam into the creek. TNC purchased the farm in 2017. In partnership with a local farmer who leases the property, TNC is working on sustainable grazing strategies to increase cattle production and the farmer’s bottom line, while responsibly managing the land.
TNC installed electric fences to keep the cattle out of the creek, and watering systems were added.
“We have individual areas that we can shut off, so we don’t have to run electricity to the whole area. It’s pretty snazzy,” Wamsley said. “MFA did soil sampling so we could see the health of our soil. Adam Jones, conservation specialist at MFA, had the forage analyzed. There are 12 different pastures, and we have a control plot in each of them so we can analyze the vegetation. That’s going to help us determine which forage is working best.”
At Little Creek Farm, new grazing strategies are tested, and native grasses are part of the forage mix.
“We are looking at the big picture,” Wamsley said. “With this program, we are making sure we have quality forage that will benefit cattle production, while making sure our soil and water are in good condition. We are trying to balance both sides of the coin here.”
In 2018, TNC and MFA, along with other leaders in the agricultural industry, collaborated to launch a 4R Nutrient Management program in Missouri. It focuses on fertilizer management and conservation practices to improve soil health and limit runoff into rivers and streams.
The 4Rs refer to the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. Jones works closely with TNC on this project.
“We would like to see a system where managed grazing can be shown to be healthy for a natural landscape,” said Jones. “Some folks get nervous with conservation entities like TNC, but with this demonstration farm, you will see that conserved lands provide a benefit to all. Farmers and conservation organizations can work together.”
Dunn Ranch Prairie and Little Creek Farm projects serve as a model for other pasture and prairie systems in the region, Bennett said. “There is a good balance for wildlife to develop and thrive here in all our little pockets and pieces of habitat,” he added.
Wamsley said TNC’s short-term goals are to continue using the lands to promote conservation and ranching strategies, such as controlling invasive species and woody plants and using prescribed burning.
Long-term goals include working with private landowners to implement conservation ranching and deploying new technology to benefit wildlife, soil, health and water quality while providing farmers and ranchers an economically viable way of life.
“We hope to build Dunn Ranch Prairie into a more resilient landscape as we deploy new strategies based on the scientific research,” Wamsley said. “It is critical to continue to use grazing, mechanical treatment, fire and other management strategies to diversify the landscape so that it can be a permanent home or stopover location for all forms of birds, insects and land animals.”
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